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Laramie Project

Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard
So young...

The Laramie Project (2002) starstarstar
 Reviewed 2002-04-02: Written and directed by Moisés Kaufman of the Tectonic Theater Company (which I guess is all-gay), the original play was based on interviews with the residents of Laramie, Wyoming (population 26,687), beginning a month after the incident in the fall of 1998. This 21-year-old gay college student, Matthew Shepard, was abducted on 5 October 1998 by two Laramie residents, taken from the bar where they met to a remote area, apparently thinking he had bummed a ride home, tied to a fence, beaten to within an inch of his life, and left for dead. He was discovered 18 hours later, hospitalized in a coma, and died five days after that.

Those are the facts. But The Laramie Project documents and, with the help of some unknown and several known actors, dramatizes the feelings of the town residents in the aftermath, as they looked into themselves in disbelief that such a normal town could produce people of such brutality. More than one resident expressed the opinion that such a thing couldn't happen here; and yet it did. Some people don't see themselves until you put a mirror up to their faces -- or a microphone.

The film has been criticized for going a step too far beyond the play -- that it loses credibility as a documentary, and force as a drama, for using recognizable actors. I don't agree. While I was a little distracted by the familiar faces, I was also drawn into the story by reflecting more on the words than on who was saying them the second time. Besides, film is the way to reach the masses, and for a made-for HBO film there might have to be some compromises: like hiring some familiar faces to make the film marketable and attractive enough to recoup its expenses.

Now comes the editorial part of my thoughts.

Yes, I thought The Laramie Project was an effective drama, based on an example of how nasty and brutish human beings can be in making another human's life so short. You may say that religion didn't cause Matthew Shepard's death -- the open-air preacher and the resident evangelist's insensitive excoriation of homosexuality to the contrary -- but no religionist, not even the sensitive Catholic priest, did anything to prevent it. It is as if the God of Love didn't extend his love to Matthew Shepard. On the other hand, some people in Laramie were better than their God.

I don't want to see anyone killed or criminalized for being different, whether or not that difference is a "choice," as some claim. As far as I can determine from the behavioral sciences, people who engage in homosexual behavior do so because they're kind of "wired" for it -- just as I'm "wired" for heterosexual behavior. And I don't like to use the terms homosexual, or gay, or lesbian to describe a lifestyle because it in fact describes an activity. For example, to call me a heterosexual is absurd, since I'm only "being" heterosexual when I'm having sex. The rest of the time (one would assume), I'm thinking of other things. One would assume the same of "homosexuals," as well.

The other issue brought up by The Laramie Project is hate-crime legislation. Matthew Shepard was murdered; we already have laws against murder. The two young men who murdered Shepard were punished severely (two life sentences). Indeed, Shepard's father specifically asked the court to spare the life of one of the murderers, correctly reasoning that you can't show a man the error of his ways if he isn't around to learn the lesson.

My objection is this: hate-crime laws create a special, protected class of citizens who are given better, perhaps swifter, justice than other citizens. This institutionalizes injustice and is wrong on its face: I'm sure the Constitution says something somewhere about equal protection of the laws (the 14th Amendment), which hate-crime legislation would surely violate. The Constitution recognizes citizens, not interest groups. Recognizing interest groups, even for the best possible reasons, creates envy in the unrecognized groups. Envy is a motive for hatred, even murder -- so why increase the reasons for us hating and killing one another?

Furthermore, laws are supposed to be a code of external conduct, written to punish actions without regard to the thoughts behind the actions. But hate-crime legislation punishes the thought behind the action, or else the legislation would simply duplicate laws already on the books. We get into a very dangerous area of jurisprudence when we start punishing improper thoughts in addition to improper actions. I am satisfied that justice was done to the murderers. And the outpouring of sympathy for Shepard, which arose from public horror at the actions of his murderers, was heartwarming. The Laramie Project portrayed some human beings at their worst, but came out showing humanity at its best.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me!

Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.